May 1, 2015

Gagnon on Arsenokoites: The Bible on Abusive vs. “Committed” Same-Sex Relationships

by Mike Riccardi

God and the Gay ChristianAs the Supreme Court has recently heard arguments regarding a federal mandate that would legalize homosexual “marriage,” it’s important for the church to be equipped to defend their position from Scripture. True Christians are not against gay “marriage” because we are mean-spirited, bigoted misanthropes who love to force our opinions on others. We are against gay “marriage” because God Himself is against it, and He has told us so in His Word, the God-breathed Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16–17). Scripture tells us that to embrace homosexuality as spiritually permissible is to commit (or help others to commit) eternal suicide. And no one who truly loves homosexuals would ever be a part of that.

Because God has spoken on this issue, it falls to the church to herald His Word on the matter. Passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are clear:

  • 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 – Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
  • 1 Timothy 1:9–11 – realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.

However, those who would argue that homosexuality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive argue that these clear passages have been mistranslated. The word translated “homosexuals” in each of these verses is arsenokoitēs, and, the argument goes, that original Greek word doesn’t refer to “committed same-sex relationships” but “abusive male-male” relationships. Such an argument has been widely popularized by author John Boswell, whose arguments, though refuted by Robert A. J. Gagnon, are constantly marshaled by liberals as evidence of the compatibility between homosexuality and Christianity.

For example, I came across a post from Dr. Gagnon’s Facebook page (courtesy of James White) in which a commenter sought to advance this argument. (The following is lightly adapted for readability and accuracy, as the commenter misspelled numerous Greek words a number of times.)

“There is adequate evidence through exegesis of the Scripture and through transliteration of the words in question that supports the view contrary to your belief. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:9–10 refer to abusive male-male relationships. As I’m sure you know, the former contains the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai and the latter contains only arsenokoitai. They each have, within certain translations, been falsely translated to the word homosexual, as these words are not a reference to homosexuality per se, and certainly not a reference to loving, committed, same-sex unions. Other Greek literature of the same period of time supports the view that arsenokoitai makes reference to a male-male relationship with an imbalance of power, for example a pederastic relationship.

Greek Manuscript“Generalising arsenokoitai to refer to all gay men and women is entirely incorrect. Its meaning is akin to that of men who abuse their power, economic or otherwise, to have sex with another (usually younger and weaker) male, or to humiliate another male. It may even be seen as an inadvertent reference to sodomites in the true sense of the word, being those who wanted to use male-male rape as an act of abuse, hence the term ‘homosexual offender’ in the NIV. The arsenokoitai often took advantage of younger male prostitutes; malakoi is translated to male prostitutes in the NRSV. The arsenokoites was the active male in the pair and, as I’m sure you know, such cult-temple prostitution was very common in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s time. This is what Paul was referring to.

“On a final note John Boswell suggests in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: ‘Perhaps the most extensive evidence that arsenokoitai did not connote “homosexual” or even “sodomite” in the time of Paul is offered by the amount of writing extant on the subject of homoerotic sexuality in Greek in which this term does not occur. It is extremely difficult to believe that if the word actually meant “homosexual” or “sodomite” no previous or contemporary author would have used it in a way clearly indicated with this connection’ (1980: 345).”

Here’s my question to all Christians who argue based on Scripture that homosexuality is a sin: How would you respond to this kind of argument?

Now, I’m not suggesting that you’re not a faithful Christian if you’re not a Greek scholar. But what I am suggesting is this: This is the level to which these discussions are approaching in our day. With the stakes so high, all Christians who hope to faithfully engage in this discussion and demonstrate Scripture’s and the Gospel’s sufficiency to address this highly controversial topic, need to be equipped to respond to arguments like these in ways that are accurate, informed, and full of grace and truth.

So the rest of today’s post is borrowed from a comment that Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon left on his Facebook wall responding to this argument. In it, he offers 11 responses that demonstrate that the term arsenokoitai (which gets translated “homosexuals” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) is not limited to exploitative forms of male homosexual practice. In posting this response from Dr. Gagnon, my hope is that the church will be equipped to love their neighbor as themselves—in particular by helping them see the truth of Scripture and not be led astray by fine-sounding yet specious arguments.

Here’s Dr. Gagnon (also lightly edited for readability):

1. Clear connections to the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse.

The word is formed from the Greek words for “lying” (verb keimai) and “male” (arsen) that are connected with the terms used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Levitical prohibitions of men “lying with a male” (Lev 18:22; 20:13). (Note that the word for “lying” in the Levitical prohibitions is the noun koitē, also meaning “bed,” which is formed from the verb keimai. The –tēs suffix of the singular noun arsenokoitēs denotes continuing agency or occupation.)

The intentionality of the connection with the absolute Levitical prohibitions against male-male intercourse is self-evident from the following points:

(a) The rabbis used the corresponding Hebrew abstract expression mishkav zākûr, “lying of/with a male,” drawn from the Hebrew texts of Lev 18:22 and 20:13, to denote male-male intercourse in the broadest sense.

(b) The term or its cognates does not appear in any non-Jewish, non-Christian text prior to the sixth century A.D. This way of talking about male homosexuality is a distinctly Jewish and Christian formulation. It was undoubtedly used as a way of distinguishing their absolute opposition to homosexual practice, rooted in the Torah of Moses, from more accepting views in the Greco-Roman milieu.

(c) The appearance of arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10 makes the link to the Mosaic law explicit, since the list of vices of which arsenokoitai is a part are said to be derived from “the law” (1:9).

All of the above considerations show Dale Martin’s argument to be silly; namely, that the meaning of this particular compound word does not add up to the sum of its parts. While other compound words do not necessarily do so, in this instance it clearly does.

2. The implications of the context in early Judaism.

Bible and Homosexual PracticeThat Jews of the period construed the Levitical prohibitions of male-male intercourse absolutely and against a backdrop of a male-female requirement is beyond dispute.

For example, Josephus explained to Gentile readers that “the law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman. . . . But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion, 2.199). There are no limitations placed on the prohibition as regards age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money. The only limitation is the sex of the participants.

According to b. Sanh. 54a, the male with whom a man lays in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 may be “an adult or minor,” meaning that the prohibition of male-male unions is not limited to pederasty. Indeed, there is no evidence in ancient Israel, Second Temple Judaism, or rabbinic Judaism that any limitation was placed on the prohibition of male-male intercourse.

3. The choice of word.

Had a more limited meaning been intended—for example, pederasts—the terms paiderastai (“lover of boys”), paidomanai (“men mad for boys”), or paidophthoroi (“corrupters of boys”) could have been chosen.

4. The meaning of arsenokoitai and cognates in extant usage.

The term arsenokoitēs and cognates after Paul (the term appears first in Paul) are applied solely to male-male intercourse but, consistent with the meaning of the partner term malakoi, not limited to pederasts or clients of cult prostitutes (see specifics in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 317–23).

For example, the 4th century church historian Eusebius quoted from a 2nd–3rd century Christian, Bardesanes (“From the Euphrates River [eastward] . . . a man who . . . is derided as an arsenokoitēs . . .  will defend himself to the point of murder”), and then added that “among the Greeks, wise men who have male lovers are not condemned” (Preparation for the Gospel, 6.10.25). Elsewhere Eusebius alluded to the prohibition of man-male intercourse in Leviticus as a prohibition not to arsenokoitein (lie with a male) and characterized it as a “pleasure contrary to nature,” “males mad for males,” and intercourse “of men with men” (Demonstration of the Gospel, 1.6.33, 67; 4.10.6). Translations of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 in Latin, Syriac, and Coptic also define the term generally as “men lying with males.”

5. Implications of the parallel in Romans 1:24–27.

Gagnon 2It is bad exegesis to interpret the meaning of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 without consideration of the broad indictment of male-male intercourse expounded in Rom 1:27 (“males with males”). The wording of Rom 1:27 (“males, leaving behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed in their yearning for one another”) points to an inclusive rejection of all male-male relations. Paul here does not distinguish between good non-exploitative forms of male homosexual practice and bad exploitative forms but rather contrasts all male homosexual relations with natural intercourse between a man and a woman. He also emphasizes reciprocity (“yearning for one another”), a fact that rules out an indictment only of a coercive one-sided homosexual desire.

Other factors confirm the inclusive rejection of all male homosexual practice in Rom 1:27: Paul’s intertextual echo in Rom 1:23–27 to Gen 1:26–27 (which contrasts male homosexual practice with God’s intentional design in creation, “male and female [God] created them” and the consequent marital bond), his use of a nature argument (which transcends distinctions based on coercion or promiscuity), and the parallel indictment of lesbianism in Rom 1:26 (a phenomenon in the ancient world not normally manifested with slaves, call girls, or adolescents).

The fact that semi-official same-sex marriages existed in the Greco-Roman world and were condemned by Greco-Roman moralists, rabbis, and Church Fathers as unnatural, despite the mutual commitment of the participants in such marriages, is another nail in the coffin for the contention that the term arsenokoitai had only exploitative or promiscuous male homosexual relations in view.

6. Implications from the context of 1 Corinthians 5–7.

This absolute and inclusive sense is further confirmed by the broader context of 1 Corinthians 5–7:

  • the parallel case of incest in chapter, which gives no exceptions for committed, loving unions and echoes both Levitical and Deuteronomic law;
  • the vice list in 6:9–11, where sexual offenders are distinguished from idolaters, consent is presumed, and a warning is given to believers not to engage in such behavior any longer;
  • the analogy to sex with a prostitute in 6:12–20, where Gen 2:24 is cited as the absolute norm and the Christian identity of the offender is presumed;
  • and the issue of marriage in chapter 7, which presumes throughout that sex is confined to male-female marriage.

7. The relevance of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.

If inappropriate hairstyles or head coverings were a source of shame because they compromised the sexual differences of men and women, how much more would a man taking another man to bed be a shameful act, lying with another male “as though lying with a woman”? Paul did not make head coverings an issue vital for inclusion in God’s kingdom, but he did with same-sex intercourse.

8. Implications of 1 Timothy 1:9–10 corresponding to the Decalogue.

At least the last half of the vice list in 1 Tim 1:8–10 (and possibly the whole of it) corresponds to the Decalogue. Why is that important? In early Judaism and Christianity the Ten Commandments often served as summary headings for the full range of laws in the Old Testament. The seventh commandment against adultery, which was aimed at guarding the institution of marriage, served as a summary of all biblical sex laws, including the prohibition of male-male intercourse. Bible HomosexualityThe vice of kidnapping, which follows arsenokoitai in 1 Tim 1:10, is typically classified under the eighth commandment against stealing (so Philo, Pseudo-Phocylides, the rabbis, and the Didache; see The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 335–36).

This makes highly improbable the attempt by some to pair arsenokoitai with the following term andrapodistai (kidnappers, men-stealers), as a way of limiting its reference to exploitative acts of male-male intercourse (so Robin Scroggs), rather than with the inclusive sexual term pornoi (the sexually immoral) that precedes it.

9. The implication of the meaning of malakoi.

If the term malakoi is not limited in its usage to boys or to men who are exploited by other men, then arsenokoitai certainly cannot be limited to men who have sex with boys or slaves.

10. Sex with adult males as worse than sex with adolescent boys.

In the Greco-Roman world homosexual intercourse between an adult male and a male youth was regarded as a less exploitative form of same-sex eros than intercourse between two adult males. The key problem with homosexual intercourse—behaving toward the passive male partner as if the latter were female—was exacerbated when the intercourse was aimed at adult males who had outgrown the “softness” of immature adolescence. Consequently, even if arsenokoitai primarily had in mind man-boy love (and from all that we have said above, there is no evidence that it does), then, a fortiori, it would surely also take in man-man love.

11. On commitment and orientation.

Finally, there is little basis for concluding that arsenokoitai does not take in committed homoerotic relationships between homosexually oriented persons. The term’s emphasis on the act—similar to proscriptions of various incestuous unions—makes the term more encompassing of all male-male sexual activity, not less so. A loving disposition on the part of the participants is as irrelevant a consideration for homoerotic behavior as it is for an adult man-mother or brother-sister union.

Moreover, as we shall see below, ancient authors were able to conceive of caring, committed homosexual unions. Knowledge of a “sexual orientation” also is irrelevant, both because (as noted in point 1 above) the ancients could conceive of something akin to a sexual orientation while rejecting the behaviors that arise from them and because Paul conceived of sin itself as an innate impulse, passed on by an ancestor, running through the members of the human body, and never entirely within human control.

*     *     *     *     *

The next time someone claims that arsenokoites refers only to abusive homosexual relationships and not “committed, monogamous ones,” I’ll be sure to point them to this post. Many thanks to Dr. Gagnon for serving Christ’s Church by his labors.

But the question is: will the Church receive the benefits of such labors? Remember, the point of going through all this is not just to demonstrate intellectual superiority or to bury opponents under mountains of monologue. The point is: if the world is willing to go to such lengths to argue for the legitimization of homosexuality, the church must be found faithful in answering these arguments in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel. And the Gospel is worthy of our highest devotion—even the highest devotion of our minds. If we as Christians will not engage the discussion even to these levels, I ask you: who will? Who will stand and offer sound, intelligent, reasoned, truthful answers to the objections advanced against Christ and Scripture?

It must be us. Especially in a time like this. May we gird up the loins of our minds, and truly be always ready to destroy speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Lyndon Unger

    Good resource post.

    I only hope that pastors and evangelical leaders who claim to be considering these things actually take time to listen to articulate defenders of Christ’s position on marriage and sexuality as revealed by him in the Scriptures.

  • pearlbaker

    While I agree with the others that this post is indeed a great resource for this particular arguement regarding homosexuality and the meaning of the Greek as pertains to the practice of same sex partnerships vs same sex intercourse, I took away from this article a deeper lesson applicable to all arguments against the Word of God. It is not merely about homosexuality that those who oppose the Lord would try to twist Scripture to satisfy themselves and justify their particular brand of sin. This is what I took away from this post as well as the Greek lesson on arsenokoitai: “Now, I’m not suggesting that you’re not a faithful Christian if you’re not a Greek scholar. But what I am suggesting is this: This is the level to which these discussions are approaching in our day. With the stakes so high, all Christians who hope to faithfully engage in this discussion and demonstrate Scripture’s and the Gospel’s sufficiency to address this highly controversial topic, need to be equipped to respond to arguments like these in ways that are accurate, informed, and full of grace and truth.” Perhaps we should all become Greek scholars, at least to some extent, on the meatier matters in the Word, those which the world especially loves to attack….and certainly, the sin of homosexuality is near or at the top of the list.

    • Jason

      No doubt.

      The “Information Age” allows more and more people who don’t have the commitment to do their own research quick access to a scholarly sounding argument to confirm just about any bias.

      It’s VERY common for a study of the original language to be what ends a debate in my own head, because people can make a pretty convincing case when left to create alternate definitions for words that I had previously thought were crystal clear.

      This is the main reason it grieves me when I hear so many cases in the church of a member claiming that pretension or ulterior motives have to be behind anyone who goes out of their way to do anything more than a cursory study.

      • pearlbaker

        I think it is worth saying that the reason we need to know for sure, and are adequately equipped to give an informed explanation of what we believe and why, is that it is our duty as Christians to defend the Word, preserving it intact, so that others might be saved and have confidence in their salvation through the infallible Word of God, all to the glory of God. There can be no doubt in the Word, even if we doubt ourselves and our interpretation of it. If we have doubt, we must dig deeper, the truth is there in the Word for the finding with the help of the Holy Spirit! Faith, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift from God.

  • Daryl Little

    I’ll be saving this on on my computer. I appreciate the resource Mike.

  • tovlogos

    That’s for the work, Mike. I can use much of this. I’ll have to reread it a few times to own it, but I will not hesitate to pass it on.

    Of course there is no doubt that the Bible cannot be comprehensively understood just by a translation; but there is enough commentary to help people.

    ” It is bad exegesis to interpret the meaning of arsenokoitai in 1 Cor 6:9 without consideration of the broad indictment of male-male intercourse expounded in Rom 1:27(“males with males”). The wording of Rom 1:27″

    The first time a Jehovah’s Witness said to me: Mark 10:18: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” I knew it was going to be a long day.

    Right — when we have a good understanding of vocabulary and grammatical nuance, there is still the need to be imbued with the Holy Spirit — God also has His logic which can escape our finite minds,
    Knowing that people will spin passages right out of the Bible. We have been told of the necessary unity of all Scripture, as you pointed out.

    Whenever I have spoken to a homosexual, I noticed there has always been a defensiveness about him. I have always thought it was his conscience, which was half the battle. But Romans 1:28 is clear; and I know when to stop.

    Your work won’t be wasted, brother. Well done.

    • Thanks Mark. More Dr. Gagnon’s work than mine, but I appreciate your encouragement just the same. 🙂

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  • kevin2184

    Thanks for writing this, Mike. I just posted it on my facebook page with the following comment: Mankind can rationalize away any sin in order to placate a guilty conscience. And even though our Lord
    FREELY forgives any who turn from their sin to follow Him, one must first “confess” (i.e. agree with the Lord) that the behavior is indeed sinful. I pray every day for my gay friends and family that they realize two biblical truths: 1) That living an unrepentant homosexual life is unequivocally sinful and eternally damnable, and 2) Our Lord is merciful to any who come to him in faith and repent of their sinful ways. He is truly compassionate and will “abundantly pardon” you (Isaiah 55:7). Not only that, but He will also provide you with HIS power (not yours) so that you can turn your homosexuality and follow Him, as you know I have. You can be freed from homosexuality and joyfully so! I would be lying if I said otherwise.

    • Thanks Kevin. What a glorious testimony the Lord has been gracious to give you. Jesus is more satisfying than the gratification of our fleshly desires. Glorious. Thanks for pressing on, and for encouraging us here.

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  • Cameron Walton

    Thanks for a great post Mike. This does bring up something I wonder about often. How can we as those who don’t know greek and the ancients usage of language discern what is true and what isn’t. So many people say they know these things and don’t acrually (as you have shown in this post). So how do we know who to listen to? Normally I have found this easy to decide by the peoples commitment and faithfullness to scripture, but it still concerns me.

    • One safeguard is that really dishonest translation of the biblical text normally never gets past the reviewers of any newer version. These people really know original languages, or they wouldn’t be reviewing. I write as the author of the 1997 article in Christian Scholar’s Review used by Rob Gagnon in his big book. He slightly misunderstood the linguistic evidence himself at that stage, but has since refined his view. This is mentioned in my ‘reprint with improvements’ of that original article in my very new volume . It differs from Gagnon’s big book in being shorter, cheaper, more Anglican (!) and in parts perhaps more accessible to the general reader. The arsenokoites is a man who habitually penetrates males, and because chooses freely to live like that is responsible for his actions and can therefore be called on to repent.

    • Hey Cameron, that’s a great question. I think your criteria of commitment and faithfulness to Scripture is a huge key. Are they manifestly just seeking to understand what God’s Word says and obey it? Or are they trying to push some sort of personal agenda or explain inconvenient texts away?

  • “How would you respond to this kind of argument?”

    Greeks want wisdom, I preach Christ crucified.

    1 Cor 1:18-25

    That is a good article to help Christians understand how to read the text. A lot of hard work went into it and I am thankful to learn from it.

    • “How would you respond to this kind of argument?”

      Greeks want wisdom, I preach Christ crucified.

      I do think this is a necessary point, Michael. We always need to get the Gospel, because that alone changes hearts.

      But from the apologetics side of things, we do need to be prepared with a defense (and an offense, as the case may be) against those attacks which come against the Word. If unbelievers are putting in the kind of intellectual and academic effort so as to make potentially-legitimate lexical challenges like presented above, it won’t do for the church to stick our fingers in our ears and repeat the Gospel message. We need to be able to respond with at least the same level of care and effort that they’ve put in to their objection.

      Then, after we’ve demolished the stronghold of their objection and taken every thought captive to Christ, then we can explain, “Now, as I’ve shown you, the evidence simply doesn’t support your view. But ultimately, evidence won’t convince you. Your problem isn’t that you need more evidence, but that you need a new heart and new eyes to properly evaluate that evidence.” And then Gospel.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • My apologies if you thought my comment was meant to diminish the importance of your article.

        I was simply answering your question…which…maybe now that you’ve educated me I would be able to answer differently.

        • Oh, not at all brother. I think it’s important to tell folks that they can get bogged down in mounds of apologetic argumentation and they just need to preach the Gospel. I was just trying to affirm that there’s a place for that, but also a place for engagement on the level that the unbeliever brings the discussion to.

          Always grateful for your comments!

  • Lee Callan

    Thank you for your thoughtful study Mike. I appreciate what Jesus says in Matthew 19:4-6, “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
    Jesus clearly lays out God’s design here.

    What seems to be so prevalent in our society is the “apex of the human perspective” where we are the center of the universe, where radical individualism is celebrated. God has shown us the way, what he has designed us for in life and relationships – yet He allows us to exert free will. We can acknowledge God’s way as right, despite any tendency we may have, and embrace how he has made us as opposed to pursuing “what I think is best for me”.

    • Hi Lee. Yes, I’ve made reference to Jesus’ teaching on Matthew 19 in a post where I answered the objection that Jesus never addressed homosexuality. It’s an important point to make.

      I also appreciated your comment about the systemic self-centeredness / man-centeredness of our society. I do think that’s a huge factor in the world’s refusal to submit to God’s Word on this issue. I don’t think I’d make the appeal to “free will,” though. Actually, I think the notion of free will plays into that man-centeredness that you decry. God has given us a will; we make choices, for sure. But if this issue regarding our culture’s celebration of homosexuality illustrates anything, it’s that the natural man’s will is in no way free, but is enslaved to sin (Rom 6:16; cf. 1 Cor 2:14). For that to change, we need God to open blind eyes to the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:4, 6). And so let’s keep praying and preaching the Gospel!

      Thanks Lee.